I mentioned in a previous post that I was looking forward to StarCraft II, and that wasn’t a lie. It is a rare occastion that I buy a game when it first comes out. I figure wait a few months, or even a year, and save quite a bit. Well, I waited over a decade for this game, and in my experience Blizzard games don’t diminish in value very rapidly (the original StarCraft is still $20.00). Everyone waited a long time. I figured why wait any longer, and I bought it. This review will mostly be focused on the single player campaign, but I will provide some comments on the multi-player as well. In short, I will say that the game did not disappoint, but it was not without flaw. It would be a disservice to say that just because Blizzard (as reputable as they are) made this game, it’s automatically good.
Night Killers 2
When I first finished the original StarCraft I made a stick figure animation. In the short film two guys stand on a planet, a moon shines in the background. One of the stick figures holds a huge machine-gun, the signature of the Terran marines. He fires at the other stick figure, who responds by shouting, “I’ll see you in… Ahhhh….” When the victim is hit a huge explosion ensues. Following that, a title screen appears, as if it were the opening video of a game. Originally the title screen read, StarCraft 2. Then the face of a Protoss appears. I later modified the animation, and the title screen now reads, Night Killers 2, because I didn’t want to infringe on Blizzard’s trademark, but it goes to show how excited I was for another StarCraft game.
To get one disappointment out of the way I want to comment on the opening movie. About two years ago a short trailer was released, in which a marine is suited up in power armor, and, appearing that he’s about to go out into battle, says, “Hell, it’s about time.” Clearly his remark was a joke on how long fans have waited for this game. This turned out to be the opening video to the actual game. I’m saying this in shock, not in glee. This video seemed more or less like a joke, a piece of humor to get a laugh out of the fans, and they used it for the game. When I first fired up the game, I was wondering why they were reshowing me the trailer I’d already seen. I wanted to see some kind of intense battle being carried out on a foreign world. No such luck. This was nothing like the salvage vessel being destroyed in the original game. It was cool, sure, but it wasn’t that exciting, and it certainly wasn’t the Apocalypse Now-like trench warfare seen in the opening movie of Brood War. Throughout the game, we do learn who the man in the opening video is, and the movie does apply to the story, but I expected more.
The game manages the single player campaign much differently than Blizzard has done before. Rather than going through menus to get to mission briefings, or having the story play out in RTS mode, you play out the role of the main character, Jim Raynor. The game begins with Raynor hanging out in a bar on the planet Mar Sara. The story is played out in animated sequences rather than the traditional pre-rendered video of past Blizzard games. This was a good choice on Blizzard’s part. If you watch the old StarCraft videos, as cool as they still are, they are low resolution. For StarCraft II, the story videos are going to scale to whatever resolution you play the game at, so the game’s animated sequences are likely to hold up in the future. There are a few pre-rendered videos, which may not hold up so well in the future, but they do look really cool right now.
As I was saying, the game begins with Jim Raynor on the planet Mar Sara, where you have the option to click on various objects to get Raynor’s thoughts on them. After the first mission, you’ll get your first chance to talk to another character, Tychus Findlay. Throughout the game while you are in between missions, you’ll have the opportunity to talk to various other characters. When you click on them, they’ll give you their thoughts on upcoming and previous missions. You can do other things as well, such as watch news reports, play an arcade game, and other more important things, such as upgrading your equipment and hiring mercenaries.
Interestingly enough, when a friend of mine first described WarCraft II to me, I was imagining something akin to the in-between-mission mode of StarCraft II. My friend told me that in WarCraft II you could click on characters, and they’d say funny things. Never having played an RTS, I imagined an adventure game type scene, with a fixed set, and characters to talk to by clicking on.
This mission briefing system is very interesting. You’ll spend most of your time aboard Raynor’s command ship, the Hyperion. On the bridge, you can access the star map, which usually has two or three missions for you to choose from. You can also visit the engineering bay for upgrades, the cantina for relaxation, and the science lab for various research upgrades and missions.
Upgrades are bought by earning cash or research points during missions. There are three main flavors of upgrades, the unit and building upgrades, research upgrades, and mercenaries.
Unit and building upgrades are just that, upgrades for your units and buildings. By spending some money you can have marines start with more health, make it so bunkers can hold more units, cause various units to deal more damage, and so forth.
Research upgrades are often more helpful. You’ll be developing research in both Protoss and Zerg technology. For every five research points that you earn in these categories, you get to choose between one of two different research options, each has its benefits, but you only get one of them for the duration of your campaign. One such option allows you to build vespene gas refineries that do not require SCVs to gather the gas. There are other helpful (and sometimes not very helpful) research options as well.
Mercenaries are a little different. When you buy a mercenary contract, they will be available for hire at the mercenary compounds during the missions. Each mercenary squad is based on one of the standard units, but they are a little tougher, and when you hire them from the mercenary compound you get them instantly, no build time. You do have to wait for a recharge period before you can hire them, and there are other limitations associated with them, but they will prove very useful if you need troops right away.
One cool thing about the upgrades, is that you can replay old missions with all your new technology. Also, as you complete more missions, you get access to more and more units. When you replay missions, you will have access to all the units you’ve earned at that point. This is very helpful for earning the achievements on missions that you may have missed previously.
I want to comment on the graphics as well. The in-between-mission graphics are excellent. They look as good as any shooter, with shadows and everything. Quite impressive. The male characters look a little funny, most are short and stocky, but that isn’t really anything different from the original game. StarCraft is meant to have a cartoonish feel to it.
On the other hand, the RTS mode graphics are a complaint I have. I played the game with the settings on high, and they looked okay, but I they they could look better. Dawn of War II looks better, in my opinion. There’s something about the graphics that feel stale. The buildings have the same basic look to them, there’s variation with race, but each race’s buildings look very similar. This isn’t horrible, but it would have been nice to see a little more color. I do acknowledge that the special effects are excellent, lights flaring, explosions, and shadows, all with audio to match, make the game feel like a battlefield. It is just that the buildings and some of the units feel a little drab.
Now I want to discuss the meat of the game, the missions. Blizzard has done an excellent job of creating unique missions. Unlike the original game, where, with few exceptions, each mission basically involved attacking and destroying an enemy base, each mission in StarCraft II has some kind of gimmick that makes it stand out from the others. For example early in the campaign there is a mission where every few minutes lava rises, so you have to get all your troops, and buildings to high ground (most Terran buildings are mobile). Another mission has a night and day cycle, where you need to retreat to your base and setup defenses at night, but during the day you can go out and cause mayhem. These two, are probably the most notable missions as far as uniqueness goes, but all the missions give you the sense that you are doing something different.
Unfortunately this model of single player game-play does have a flaw. There are no straight-forward destroy the enemy base missions. It would have been nice to see at least one mission like that, but there aren’t any. Some come close, but as I said, there is always some kind of gimmick. Usually the gimmick makes you feel rushed as well, and it would have been nice to see some missions where you could just go at whatever pace you want to.
Still, players are going to get what they expect. Essentially you’ll be using your mouse and keyboard to send troops into battle. Blizzard has reworked the keyboard controls from the original game (though you have the option for the traditional controls, if you so choose) where most commands can be issued without moving the left hand from the standard typing position. For example, in the original game a probe would be built by pressing “P”, the command is now “E”, which is not a letter that is in the word “Probe,” but is a key that doesn’t require you to move your hand across the keyboard. This will take some adjusting for players that expect the command to build various units to be the first letter (or even a letter at all) in the unit’s name, but overall this will lead to more efficient multi-player gaming.
The most important thing about the game, is that it is fun. Missions are fast paced, action packed, and bring a satisfying sense of epic warfare. You can command a lot more units at a time than you ever could before. The game does away with the limitation of selecting only twelve or so units at a time. Now you can select (as far as I could tell) as many units at a time as you want. Then you can send them all to victory (or death if you didn’t select enough units). The single player campaign offers twenty five missions. You’ll spend maybe fifteen hours on your first play-through. You might even want to play again, to get some of those achievements you missed, or you may just want to move onto multi-player, which is a whole other ballpark.
I do want to complain about one thing in the single player campaign, and that is the secret mission. There is one secret mission, and if you miss it, you miss it. That means if you didn’t get access to it before you finish the game, the only way to get access to it, is by replaying the entire game. Unless you happen to have a save-game from early on. I didn’t have such a save-game, so I have to replay the game to get access to this mission. I was upset by this, and other gamers on some of the forums that I read were upset as well. It just isn’t that satisfying to see that you completed 25/26 missions. This feels like an oversight on Blizzard’s part, you should be able to play this mission after completing the campaign. You can’t.
As for the story, the game stands alone as a complete story. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s not a bad cliffhanger. The ending is positive. Sure, there is more story to the series, but Wing’s of Liberty doesn’t have many unanswered questions. I don’t know how long the wait will be for the next two games in the series, but I am certainly left with a better feeling in my gut than the end of Brood War, where the Terrans were losing. Wings of Liberty is very much a new chapter of StarCraft. It opens various potential conflicts for the future of the series. It makes it clear that the bad guys may not be who you think the bad guys are. Future games in this series can, and will, go in whatever direction Blizzard wants them to go, and it will be interesting to see what direction they choose. I’ll definitely be looking forward to the next two games.
Let me now move onto multi-player. Going in, I expected it to be difficult. I figured I’d play a few matches to get a feel for it. I played 1v1, my very first game. I wanted to play as Protoss, because I think they’re cool. I played as such, and was brutally murdered. I expected to be. I couldn’t say I was upset, because it was my first time playing.
When you connect to play a multi-player game, the games asks if you’d like to start in the training league. In this league you aren’t ranked, so it doesn’t affect your standing or stats. The game wants you to play fifty matches in this league. Quite frankly, that is more matches than I ever plan on playing, I don’t have that kind of time to spend on one game. When you find a match, the game indicates that it is “Searching For Other Players”. Later it says, “Expanding Search,” clearly indicating that it can’t find any other players as bad as you, which means you’re going to be matched up with better players, and probably get killed.
For that reason, on my second game I chose to play 2v2, that way, hopefully, my teammate would be better than me, and I’d at least have a chance of winning. Well I won that game pretty quickly because the players on the other team had a bad connection to the internet, or something, so they dropped, and I won the game by default, before I even started.
On my third game, it was the real deal. I don’t know if my teammate, Psycostele, knew what he was doing or not. I was talking to him over voice chat. He had to type back to me. He didn’t even know the game had voice chat. That made me worried, I thought we might lose. Still, in case he was experienced, I figured I wouldn’t tell him it was my second time playing, that way he wouldn’t bail out on me in frustration. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I heard Void Rays were tough, so I built them. My teammate seemed to like that, so he sent me some of his gas and minerals. I built more Void Rays. I lead the attack on the enemy base, and we dominated. My teammate never even built that many troops. I guess he figured the Void Rays would be enough. I also had quite a few units called Stalkers, which I remembered using during the Protoss portions of the campaign. The match was about fifteen minutes long.
I will tell you this, there was something very satisfying about winning. Sure we were all in the training league, so we were all new, but it still felt good to destroy the enemy bases, especially after my first game where I was brutalized. It was a rush, definitely.
In addition to the base game, players can expect a lot of user maps for the game, with totally different play styles. This is where persistent multi-player gamers will get their value from the game. Blizzard is saying that maps and mods for this game will be better than those developed for WarCraft III. Whether or not that is true is yet to be seen, but the potential is certainly there.
Multi-player is going to require a lot of hours of game-time for players dedicated to the game, but will bring satisfaction to serious players. Single player is a fun experience for those that like the occasional RTS, but don’t really want any kind of hardcore competitive experience. It was a long wait, and the while the game has a few flaws, it will not disappoint. It’s a little pricey for those only wishing to play the single player campaign, but, “Hell, it’s about time.”